October Master Gardener Column

By Jan Phipps  


 Get ready for the new invasion from Asia – jumping worms a.k.a. crazy worms, Alabama jumpers, or snake worms. I recently read an article by Cindy Dampier in the Chicago Tribune explaining the problem. Once you see them you will know why they are called jumping worms because that is exactly what they do. They also thrash around a lot and can be quite a scary sight if you don't know what they are. Jumping worms are larger than earthworms and have a white band that encircles their body.

            Jumping worms are all over the Chicago area and can be found in other parts of Illinois, so it is probably only a matter of time before they show up in our yards.  

            Because of glaciers, the Midwest has no native earthworms. Our beneficial earthworms came from Europe. They improve the soil by working vertically, making pore spaces, mixing the soil, and leaving behind fertile castings (excrement).

            Unfortunately, instead of improving the soil, jumping worms deplete it of nutrients and structure resulting in soil that can’t hold moisture or plants. They are voracious eaters of organic matter, staying on top of the soil or just under the surface. According to Brad Herrick, a University of Wisconsin ecologist, landscapers are having to replenish mulch multiple times during the growing season because the worms eat it so fast.

            Instead of leaving behind fertile castings like European earthworms, jumping worms leave behind loose granular soil that water runs right through. It is so porous plant roots can’t get anchored. And, there is the “ick” factor produced by masses of very active worms you know are destructive.

            The first frost kills the worms, but the egg cases survive the winter. The egg cases are hard to spot because they look like crumbs of soil. Multiple generations are produced in one summer, peaking in August and September.

 It is thought they move to new areas as eggs in the soil, mulch, and compost. Mulch is not only food for the jumping worms, but also responsible for spreading the eggs. One preventative theory is to check your mulch before spreading it in your landscape. Put some in a bucket and leave it outside for a couple of weeks. If no worms are present and no eggs have hatched, it is probably safe to use.

 Currently, there is no control. Herrick suggests zipping them into a plastic bag, leaving it out in the sun until they die, then disposing of them in the trash. The sooner you do this after spotting them, the less time they will have to leave behind egg cases which are hard to see, and the less damage they will do to your soil and organic matter.

            Courage gardeners! It is a tough world out there. For questions, call the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners of Edgar County at 217-465-8585.